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Happiness and Covid-19

“Of the ten countries with the most number of COVID-19 cases - USA, Brazil, Russia, Spain, UK, Italy, France, Germany, Turkey, India - none were in the top 10 happiest countries."

by Dr Anand Kulkarni

COVID19 and happiness?  COVID19 and optimism?  What’s the relationship?

Optimism comes in many forms, ranging from abundant optimism to zealous optimism with restrained to resilient optimism.

The Centre for Optimism’s website contains many categories of optimism.

Most people view happiness and optimism as going hand in hand and in many ways we often equate a sunny disposition with the happiest and most optimistic people we know.

Read More: "Optimism and Happiness"

Happiness is related to a positive view of one’s self and others, and a “sunny” approach to the present and the future. It can be both a material and non- material construct, the latter for example, based on feeling happy in the pursuit of altruism. Happiness is usually derived from 100s of small interactions rather than one success of buying that perfect house or car.

I am curious to the extent to which happiness, optimism and COVID-19 intersects.

I looked at The World Happiness report, which measures national happiness by survey of its populations (and then a happiness score is derived for countries), with separate assessments made of contributions to the overall happiness score accounted for by variables including life expectancy; GDP per capita; freedom to make life choices; generosity (donation of money to a charity); social support (helping relatives and friends in trouble); and perceptions of corruption.

The top twenty happiest countries for 2020 in order are:

  • Finland
  • Denmark
  • Switzerland
  • Iceland
  • NorwayPhoto by Belle Co from Pexels
  • The Netherlands
  • Sweden
  • New Zealand
  • Austria
  • Luxembourg
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • UK
  • Israel
  • Costa Rica
  • Ireland
  • Germany
  • US
  • Czech Republic
  • Belgium

What of this you may ask?

Apart from its own intrinsic value of which countries are in the top (or bottom countries) in the happiness ladder, I have aligned the current COVID-19 pandemic to country happiness.

The core question is whether there is any relationship between the incidence of COVID-19 and the happiness of a nation?

That is, are happy countries more or less prone to COVID-19? 

Of course, correlation is not causation, and there are a multitude of factors influencing the incidence and spread of the pandemic, including quality of health systems, testing regimes, culture and efficacy of social distancing and the like.

Nonetheless, could there be a link between happy nations and less incidence of COVID-19?

For example, are societies which are optimistic, more collegiate, generous, supportive of one another and more cohesive, i.e. happy, less likely to have widespread COVID-19 than nations which are unhappier?

Our analysis drawing on data on the total number of COVID-19 cases (active cases, recovery, deaths) from around the world (215 countries) mapped against the happiest countries (153 countries), does contain some useful insights and messages.

Note that the incidence of COVID-19 is a rapidly moving feast, and this data is as of May 28.

Of the ten countries with the most number of cases (USA, Brazil, Russia, Spain, UK, Italy, France, Germany, Turkey, India) none were in the top 10 happiest countries.

The UK is the closest being in 13th place on the Happiness Index. Indeed, some of the countries that have the most number of cases are among the world’s least happy nations, namely Iran, Russia and India.

When we dig deeper though, we find that of the 50 countries that have the highest incidence of COVID-19, slightly more than half of these, 27, are in the world’s top 50 by happiness, and 15 countries are in the “moderate” happy camp, as we describe those in the 50-100 rank on happiness.

On these numbers, COVID-19, therefore, does not only relates to unhappy countries. Happy countries also have significant rates of COVID-19 suggesting that many other factors are play. In saying this, it is the case that there is a considerable number, 22 countries of the 50 most COVID-19 affected countries which are outside the top 50 by happiness (one country does not have a happiness ranking).

In an article entitled “Coronavirus reminds you of death – and amplifies your core values, both bad and good", Jeff Greenberg and Sheldon Solomon concluded “People who are more optimistic about their coping skills and have confidence in health care providers are prone to react constructively. They typically follow the recommendations of health care experts.


In conclusion, perhaps happiness and optimism may be keys to effective public policy in dealing with pandemics.

While it is likely that there is a range of economic, political and social factors beyond happiness which link to COVID-19, we should not underestimate the importance of happiness as a foundational starting point for societies to deal with crises.

Social cohesion and a spirit of generosity are hallmarks of optimism and happiness.

June 2020

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